Reviewed by Raili Simojoki.
Benjamin Law’s first book, The Family Law, is a collection of themed essays about his eccentric yet endearing family. His shorter pieces offer quirky insights into eclectic topics such as green burial, sleep deprivation, homosexuality healing workshops, and 90s TV sidekicks; and have appeared in frankie (where he is a senior contributor), The Monthly, The Big Issue, Best Australian Short Stories and others. The Law family packs a punch; they are delightfully mad, but also incredibly witty and intelligent. Reading The Family Law, you wonder, did that really happen, and, if so, where does one find such families? It’s like David Sedaris, but with more tenderness and whimsy.
Highlights include ‘On Nudity’ (Law and siblings overcome prudery and get naked in a Japanese bath), ‘Toward Manhood’ (exploring Law’s lack of manliness), ‘God Camp’ (describing a trip to a surreal, hardcore religious-military-style high school camp where even Joan Osborne’s ‘One of Us’ is considered blasphemous), ‘Skeletons’ (the deportation of his extended family), ‘We Have the Technology’ (teaching his mother to use email and SMS), and ‘So, You are a Homo’ (the mathematical chances of finding love for homosexuals).
Law’s mother is a vivid character: zany, playfully profane, with a wicked, offbeat sense of humour. She sends avant garde birthday text messages to her children, such as; ‘All my discomfort ööö… And painful memories ÖÖÖ,’ with the Os representing a line of female mouths in labour. Law describes the hardship his mother endured (physical and otherwise) giving birth to five children in succession, and raising them largely on her own. To remind her children of this, she constantly regales them with graphic descriptions of their births.
Law’s parents separated when he was twelve, and his enterprising workaholic father was often absent from family life. In ‘Oceans Apart’, Law recounts the childrens’ exhaustive, ultimately futile, attempts to find the perfect gift for their father and their disappointment when he gives them cash as a present, even on his own birthday. Aside from its cultural particularities, this story captures the sense of loss felt by children who try, and fail, to connect with their parents.
This is also one of the first books about being a teenager in the 90s: chatting online for the first time, teaching parents to use new technology, a media obsession with serial killers, a plethora of sleep-disturbing scary movies, and the rise of One Nation. Look out for Law’s amusing literary analysis of Mariah Carey’s Music Box, a seminal album for many of his vintage.
Law’s teenage angst was heightened by especially adverse conditions – being Asian, gay, and generally eccentric while living on the Sunshine Coast – not always a diversity-friendly place. He makes light work of this though – describing, for example, his lack of manliness as a product of sloppy decision-making by his mother’s uterus, and linking his sexual awakening to a preference for Mariah Carey over Nirvana.
Overall, enjoyable, easy reading – heartwarming, cathartic in its kookiness, with the occasional laugh out loud. It’s a little sentimental at times, but Law’s irrepressible style prevents this from being overwhelming. It did fall short of knocking my socks off – many of the best essays are in the second half of the book, so I struggled a bit in the beginning, but there were enough gems to keep me going. Law is not short on ideas, and it would be interesting to read a longer piece, drawing together some of those isolated anecdotes and insights into a broader vision. In any event, Law is a considerable talent with a long future ahead of him.
Raili Simojoki is a freelance Melbourne-based writer. You can read some more of her work here.
LM: Catch the funny and adorable Benjamin Law in person at the Emerging Writers’ Festival. See the Town Hall program.